The Social Justice Warrior and the Meaning of Creation

Before I write anything I should say that anyone familiar with the ideas of Dr. Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pagaeu will note their presence all over what follows.  My debt to them is deep in this post.  My thanks to them both.

I recently had fun debating with a colleague about Russia’s recent move to restrict the freedom’s of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  No western commentator approved the move.  Everyone thought that this added to the examples of how Russia is lurching away from the West, is authoritarian, is evil, and so on.  Even Trump lodged a protest.  Now, while I happen to agree with Russia’s move (mostly–it’s hard to explain), I acknowledge that my position is far from a slam-dunk.  In fact, my colleague and I agreed to have our sides in the debate be chosen at random.  We both ended up arguing for the side opposite of our opinions, which added to the fun and lightened the mood of the occasion.

It seems impossible for us to imagine society working without more or less complete freedom of religion.  But, every society up until quite recently, from ancient Egypt down through the Scientific Revolution, limited freedom of religion.  Somehow their societies functioned just fine.  Even here and now we restrict the liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some ways, along with other religions.  Would we give “freedom of religion” to satanists who sacrificed chickens next door?

Anyway, Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow for blood transfusions.  When one of their children comes to the hospital needing a transfusion, the state assumes temporary guardianship if the parents refuse to allow for proper treatment.  The child receives a transfusion and lives.  We have no problem with restricting the religious liberties of Jehovah’s Witnesses in this respect.  Russia just takes our approach a bit further. The difference between us is one of degree and not kind.  In fact Russia stated that the blood-transfusion issue particularly bothered them.  Russia may not even have the guardianship laws we do in the U.S., making the possibility of children dying in their hospitals potentially a genuine reality.

The point being, every society has to draw a line somewhere.  Every society must distinguish between order and chaos.  Civilization could not exist otherwise.  Maybe Russia has erred in judgment.  But all must acknowledge that freedom has limits, and maybe those limits should have different boundaries in different places depending on the culture and context.  As Peter Augustine Lawler noted, many of those who champion a homogenous amorality concerning religion get quite judgmental regarding “obesity, smoking, alcohol, and seatbelts.”

Every society has a doctrine of creation that flows from their creation story, and this story informs every society in how they will deal with the boundary between order and chaos. Genesis deals with this quite directly and more clearly than any other I have read.  In one chapter we see the following:

  • The existence of a formless void far too vast for us to begin to understand.  We are finite, and cannot comprehend the infinite (some brilliant mathematicians have gone insane trying to do this).  If the vast scope of the created order defies imagination and numbs the mind, how can we begin to understand God Himself?
  • God creating differentiation, separating light from dark, the sea from dry land, plants from animals, and so on.
  • God creating mankind in His own image–differentiating them as male and female–inviting them to participate in this process of dominion and creating differentiation themselves  In chapter 2, for example, we see Adam naming the animals.
  • It is this very order, then, that allows for us to understand our place in the world and begin to know God.

The Mosaic law extends this in a variety of ways.  God called the Israelites to differentiate in the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and of course, in the God they worshipped.  And yet, sprinkled throughout the Old Testament God gives reminders that the laws He gave and the differentiation he required were not absolute.  One thinks of the visions of Isaiah or Ezekiel, for example.  Often we see God and/or the psalmists tell us that He does not desire sacrifice, but then of course tells us to sacrifice all the same.  David understands this tension perfectly in Psalm 51, one of the most important psalms for the Church.

The Incarnation destroyed some of the old paradigms and created new ones.  Jesus breaks down the differentiation between Jew and Gentile, slave and free.  He destroys the dominion of sin and death.  He creates, or perhaps re-creates, a new kind of humanity.  The “chaos” outside of our categories invaded and transformed the world.  But . . . He still left us with “categories.”  We still have the Apostles as the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20), the canon, the liturgy, the bishops, and so on.

In his recent writing and in his numerous interviews, Jonathan Pageau discusses (among other things) the relationship between the core of society, its margins, and the chaos beyond.  Every society has a core of values and behaviors that shape culture, social interaction, politics, and so on.  So too each society has people and behavior on the margins, and the realm of nonsense and chaos beyond.  Total devotion to complete order would suffocate us.  If we let anything go at any time you have (to use Pageau’s phrase) “the flood”–a complete absence of differentiation that would destroy us in short order.

Each element has its place.  Generally speaking, the chaos exists as a warning.*  We can’t go there and live.  No one can see the face of God. The margins serve the dual purpose of challenging the core and thereby strengthen it at the same time.  Sometimes the margins penetrate the core and find ways to enlarge it and reshape in a healthy way.  The margin reminds us as well that the order we created is not absolute.  Societies need their margins and need to respond to them.

Not to stereotype too dramatically, but usually the artistic, creative groups in society occupy the margins.  To say this is “where they belong” is no insult.  That is where they are most effective.  We need only think of how certain musicians, comedians, and actors helped with the Civil Rights movement, for example.  But, would we want Picasso or Miles Davis as our congressmen?  What would happen to our arts and music?  Unfortunately at the moment, the margins of society, especially those in favor of radically different understandings of sexuality and gender, seek to become the core via judicial or executive fiat (and not the legislative process), and to enforce the ethics of the margin upon the mainstream.

This flipping of roles will work out badly for everyone.  The margins have no idea how to maintain a stable core–their whole business involves continually exploring new possibilities.  The core, ousted from their traditional role, will serve us very poorly as the prodding margin.  Just imagine a Sousa march as radical, avant-garde culture.  The end result will either result in another flood or a swing toward stifling authoritarianism, just as in France ca. 1791, or Germany in 1933, or perhaps even in Athens in 404 B.C.**

We have lived with democracy too long to see the nose on our face.  We cannot comprehend why others, including Russia, might feel apprehensive about adopting our system and our values wholesale. Democracy has a time-tested ability to plow through core traditions with extreme rapidity.  One need only look at how quickly our sexual ethics have gone from thinking about homosexual rights in the late 1990’s to state mandated speech regarding gender in about 20 years.  Perhaps we might think of democracy akin to an Italian sports car.  A sight to behold, powerful, able to move quickly in any direction.  At the same time, such cars are temperamental, break easily, and shouldn’t be driven by just anyone.

This remarkable adaptivity, however, may save us in the end.  Maybe the margin and the core can trade places rather quickly.  We have gone through transitions in the past and at least mostly righted the ship.  Hopefully soon we’ll have Aristophanes making us laugh again, and we’ll get Brad Lauhaus off the perimeter and back to grabbing rebounds on the low block.  All would be right with the world.

Dave

*I believe it is in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis mentions that many atheists or agnostics have no clue what it means to say, “If God would only show Himself plainly to all, then I would believe,” or something to that effect.  Lewis rightly points out that when the playwright steps on stage, the play is over.  God’s full revelation of Himself would overwhelm everything.  There would be no time for “belief.”

**Examples of this abound everywhere, especially on campuses around the country.  Just recently Brandeis University pulled the plug on a play by one of their own students about Lenny Bruce . . . for being too controversial.  Or read what happened to Prof. Bret Weinstein (an acknowledged supporter of Bernie Sanders, and far from a conservative) at Evergreen State University.

Finally, some might say that I contradict myself.  I favor (sort of) Russia putting limits on Jehovah’s Witnesses, while I am critical of those on the left imposing their own limits.  To clarify, I see a difference.

  • The actions of Russia are taken to reinforce their core.  Russia has a tremendously long history, and a religious history very different from our own.  We have a hard time understanding this in America, as we build off an abstract concept of rights divorced from culture, whereas Russia builds first from culture.
  • The actions of the progressive left seek to radically alter the core with ethics and practices from the margin.

Russia’s action may go too far, but fundamentally it changes very little about who they are as a people. Our recent changes are an attempt to radically shift what our core is, and introduces uncertainty about what we should be, which is dangerous to a society.

 

 

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10th Grade: Richelieu and the New World Order

Greetings to all,

This week we looked at the 30 Years War and previewed the coming change towards the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

The 30 Years War was a devastating conflict in terms of loss of life.  But it was also devastating in a psychological, moral sense.  For decades Catholics and Protestants killed each other, burned towns, committed atrocities, all in the name of the Christian faith.  The map below shows the casualties in various parts of Germany alone.

Part of the reason the war became so destructive is that various nations, like Sweden, Spain, and France found reasons to get involved at various times during the war and extended it artificially. But part of the reason that religious conflicts  persist in general is that:

  • It is difficult to compromise or negotiate with religious belief
  • Victory in a religious war is hard to define

One can only come to terms in a religious war when either

  • Both sides are completely exhausted, or
  • You change what the war is about, making it something that you can compromise on, such as possession of territory.

This is in fact what happened, and this second reason is a clue to the coming transformation in the worldview of Europe.  Since the start of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had both lead with religion in the political and philosophical realm.  Now, their focus shifted towards the more tangible and measurable.  If you have the time, this clip from Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series makes the transition in art and thought clear:

Essentially, Clark argues that the shift was from theory, which would include intellectual ideas as well as the unproven realm of ‘faith,’ to experience, observation, and the natural world.  It is the Dutch school of the 17th century that  exemplified this change.  One can see it in the work of Van Hals:

Here are practical, reasonable men.  They are a long way from the emotionally and spiritually moved men from, say, Carravaggio’s work just a few decades earlier.  This passion for representing reality apart from meaning reached it’s peak with this work of Paulus Potter:

I agree with Clark when he argues that here the passion for representing measurable reality has gone about as far as it can go.  The technical skill is remarkable, but for me at least, there is no ‘heart’ or ‘meaning’ in the work. As we shall see, the problem with this painting was the same lurking problem faced by the Scientific Revolution.

Probably the artist who married the best of the observational school with meaning had to be Rembrandt.   He depicted people “realistically,” but he managed to depict them as morally imaginative as well.  We think of him as a painter, but he was best known in his day for his etchings.  Here is one example:

If the Dutch exemplified the change in art, the French did so in the political realm.  Cardinal Richelieu is known for many things, but this quote exemplifies his philosophy:

‘People are immortal, and thus subject to the law of God.  States are mortal [that is, ‘unnatural,’ artificial, man-made creations], and are thus subject to the law of what works.’

Richelieu believed that nations did not interact with each other in the way that individuals did.  After all, people cannot kill each other, but nations can have armies that kill each other without necessarily sinning.  People can’t lie, but nations can send spies to other places where they ‘lawfully’ engage in deception.  It might be similar to people bluffing in poker.  They are trying to deceive, but are they sinning?  Most would say not, because when we play poker we enter into a world that has its own set of rules set apart from normal life.  Frenchmen will be judged by God.  But the geographical entity we call ‘France’ will pass away, it will not be judged.  Thus, ‘France’ could play by different rules than Frenchmen.

This famous painting of him shows his famously lean, intelligent frame:

With this perspective, Richelieu astounded and infuriated his contemporaries.  As France’s chief minister, he sought to serve the entity ‘France.’  This meant that:

  • France would intervene on behalf of Protestants in the 30 Years War, despite the fact that they were a Catholic nation.  Except that Richelieu didn’t see ‘Catholic France,’ but ‘France, where most people are Catholic.’  Richelieu fought not to protect Catholics, but the entity France, which he did not want surrounded by Catholic Spain.  Spain fought in the 30 Years War in part to recover the Netherlands, territory they had lost in the early 1600’s.  This new perspective shocked many, but it would be the way of the future
  • He believed that strengthening France would have to mean strengthening the king.  This in turn meant weakening the nobles.  We will see this European turn  away from the feudal era, and toward more centralized authority.  It would be another Frenchmen, Louis XIV, that would push these ideas even further later in the 17th century.

 

Dave Mathwin

12th Grade: The Origins of the Peloponnesian War

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Peloponnesian War.  This conflict took place between 431- 404 BC, and was chronicled by one of the founders of History itself, Thucydides.  Thucydides’s genius lay far beyond his dispassionate recording of events.  He concerned himself not only with battles, but also the deeper political, economic, and psychological contexts.  He was a commentator on democracy and human nature itself.  We will attempt to follow his lead, ranging back and forth between ancient and modern times.

We will also shortly begin our own Peloponnesian War game, in which the class is divided up into 5 different teams, each of whom participated in the actual Peloponnesian War.  The game is designed to give each side certain strengths and weaknesses, and different means of winning.  Generally speaking, the teams that have won in the past have focused not merely on eliminating enemy soldiers, but instead on forging a synergy between their economics, politics, and diplomacy, with their military action arising from that context.  This usually means that things start slow, but tend to pick up as weeks go by.

Most of us are used to thinking of democracy as a permanent fixture in our lives, but the Athenians lost, regained, lost, and finally regained democracy during and after the conflict.  Why did this happen?  Does war put more pressure on democracies than other forms of government?  On another note, are democracies naturally inclined toward expansion, or are those democracies that have expanded a product of historical coincidence?

Our study of this conflict should always have the idea of democracy behind it, for the war as a whole, and Athens’ role in it particularly, can teach us a lot about democracies.  Fundamentally, we should consider what makes a country “democratic.”  I offered the students the following choices:

  • In country ‘X’ the people are ruled by a king, but the laws of the realm allow for free speech, equal treatment under the law, freedoms of assembly, religion, etc.  In short, all the trappings we usually associate with democracy, except the people did not elect their leaders.
  • In country ‘Y’ the people have a representative democracy where they elect all their leaders.  But the elected government (which won 60% of the vote) uses their power to restrict the rights those that opposed them.

Which country is more democratic?  Does democracy have more to do with the process than the result?

As we look at the origins of the conflict, we will consider criteria for a ‘just’ war.  What kind of strategy should Athens have pursued, and does it teach us how democracies tend to, or should act, in war?

First, some of the background to the war.
Prior to ca. 500 B.C., Athens was not one of the major city-states of Greece.  They were not nobodies, but they could not be called a New York, LA, or Chicago.  Perhaps a Philadelphia.  Their moment came during the Persian Wars, where their staunch resistance and military success propelled them into a potential leadership role.  How did they handle it?
They helped from what was known as The Delian League, a mutual defense alliance with other city-states that rimmed the Aegean against Persia.  Member states could contribute money or ships.  As one might expect, nearly all chose the ‘money’ option.  It was easier, for starters.  But it also made sense.  Since Persia might return any time it made sense to fund the best navy and get more of the best ships out into the Aegean, and Athens had that navy.
But what if Persia did not look like it was coming back?  Can you leave the Delian League?  Athens said no.  They had some good arguments:
  • Persia was still a major power and could decide to come back at any time.
  • If a city-state left they could potentially make an alliance with Persia, which would threaten all of their neighbors.
  • Even if a city-state did not make an alliance with Persia, they would still get security.  Athens could not let Persia establish a beach-head anywhere in Greece.  Therefore they would get free security, which was unfair.
We can still imagine that the other city-states failed to be impressed with these arguments.  Athens, the one-time champion of the ‘little guy’ had become the block bully in the minds of many.  How should we view Athens?  Who was right?  Here is a map of the Greek world at the time the war began:
I think we have to appreciate Athens’ dilemma, but if we look elsewhere for clues, it appears Athens had fallen into what Toynbee called “The Idolization of the Parochial Community.’  That is, once Athens stood for something, something outside itself. Now, despite the progressive nature of Athenian democracy, drama, philosophy, and so on, Athens seemed to justify its actions based on how it related to themselves and themselves alone.  This can be seen in their siding against certain democracies when it looked like doing so might advantage them in some way.  One can see the comparisons with pre-World War I Europe, with democracy at home, and imperialism and a form of subjugation abroad.  By 431 B.C. the Greeks had made their society into a fireworks stand where anything might upset the apple cart.  Athens’s power, their rivalry with Sparta and Corinth, created a potential disaster.  If you are interested, I include below an excerpt from Toynbee’s ‘An Historian’s Approach to Religion’ on the idea of parochial communities.  When war breaks out next week we will  consider a few different issues.
  • To what extent is a country’s reputation part of its power and security?  Can threat’s to your reputation be considered a threat to your security?  Should war’s be fought if no physical danger is immediately present?  How much importance did reputation have in the Greek world?  Does that make the actions of Athenians and Spartans more or less defensible?
  • Traditionally, just war theory within the framework of Christian thought has focused on 1) The cause, 2) The goal, and 3) Proportionality of response.  One may fight defensively, but not start wars.  One can fight to defend the innocent, but not merely to extend one’s power.   If a rival invades with 1000 troops, you cannot counter with 100,000 and destroy him utterly.  Did Sparta or Athens begin the war?  Can either side lay claim to fighting a just war?
  • Corinth was a city-state covered in faded glory, anxious to reclaim it, and one that burned with indignation at Athens for wearing the mantle of ‘top dog.’  Does Corinth share any similarities with China and Russia today?  How should Athens have dealt with the overly touchy Corinth?How do the ideas of just war fit into the context of the Peloponnesian War?  How do they fit into the modern period? What constitutes an ‘attack’ upon us?  Would a cyber-attack be an act of war that would allow us to kill others? What does the possibility of weapons of mass destruction do to the concept of pre-emption in war?  Are the old guidelines relevant today, or do they need rethought?
Dave Mathwin
Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”
Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.
The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.
The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.
In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.
Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centring on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbour as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.
A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not onlyby ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.
The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . . 

Myths and Realities

Carl Bridenbaugh’s Myths and Realities has a bold title.  One supposes that he will seek to reshape everything about the colonial south.  He doesn’t.  If we view the colonial south as a society of aristocratic-minded men with large social networks, with a mass of underclass and slaves lurking just beneath the surface–well, Bridenbaugh sees the same thing.

But the book shines an unusual and unexpected light on certain aspects of society that surprised me.  What he lacks in flash and dash Bridenbaugh makes up for in clear, concise prose.  Though he grew up in Philadelphia (and taught at Harvard), he writes with the nonchalance of our picture of a southern gentlemen.  It works.

Before I write more I should say that Bridenbaugh deals very little with slavery in this volume.  At certain times he acknowledges its obvious impact and the problems it caused.  Among a few other things, he briefly seeks to dismantle the myth of the contented rural slave.* Here he focuses, however, on those that shaped the overall culture, which means focusing on whites.  Those interested in a much more in-depth look at slavery, at least in Chesapeake society, may wish to go here.  Though Bridenbaugh focuses on a variety of issues, his thoughts on education and cultural formation interested me the most.

Myths are not lies per se, and ancient myths reveal many truths.  In part, myths serve as a kind of synthesis of accumulated data.  Myths might not reveal the whole complete truth but can illumine the important core truths.

I am not anti-myth, any more than I am anti-folklore.  Indeed, these are not things one can really be “against”–they just are.

But . . . while myths can reveal truths, at times they can also obscure them, at least partially.

In Classical-Christian education circles, the narrative (or “myth,” if you prefer) at times runs something like this:

  • America’s founding fathers were an assemblage of great men who gave us a remarkable political system that is the envy of many around the world.
  • The men would not have had the impact they did or been who they were without their educations, which in general were “classical” educations, involving the extensive reading of the classics.
  • Pre-Revolutionary America was largely a Christian society, and Christianity obviously shaped this education along with the classics.
  • Therefore . . . we should all receive this kind of education to help improve our selves and our country.

There are many truths in the above statements, but is it “True”?

Yes, many of our founders were remarkable and interesting men.  Many of them had classical educations.  But they represented a very small sliver of the population and we should wonder whether or not their experience can be transferred to the broader public. Bridenbaugh shows that

  • Formative elite culture and education had little to do with literacy and
  • Little to do with religion, or at least the church

Those that eventually revolted against the British (below the Mason-Dixon line at least) do not quite fit the assumed narrative some have about our past education.  But if the vast bulk of the populace lacked a classical education, what kind of education did they have?

Most settlers might have been literate, but they likely did very little reading.  A few notables had impressive libraries, like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a few others.  Most other families had a Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, practical farming manuals, and little else.  They had nothing against book-learning per se.  Part of the reason surely was that books cost a great deal.

But there were other reasons.  Frankly, we hear no great laments about the lack of books in colonial America.  Those that did write books wrote for a small coterie that would have little application beyond their communities.  The lack of books meant they found their education elsewhere, and it seems they liked it that way.

All this made me think about the nature of education, but please consider the following thoughts speculative . . .

Residents in both the mid-atlantic and southern colonies loved visiting, events, and conversation.  Bridenbaugh states that they were all, “Eminently endowed with the art of talking.”  Dancing had great importance for youngsters, but not just because dancing allowed one to demonstrate aristocratic status. Such an interpretation gives far too much credit to Marx. They genuinely believed that learning the social graces and physical movements improved character.  We might suppose that this characater formation had strictly moral applications.  But again, this society had a political consciousness high enough to revolt from the British.  So either we assume that

  • The education of even the upper classes had no real historical content.  Then, this means that the American Revolution was not really a popular revolt, but one led primarily by the top crust of societal elites, something akin to Rome’s republican rebellion against their kings, or
  • Such an education (in visiting, talking, dancing, etc.) really did give one a distinct set of values that had public and political content.

We should not dismiss the first option out of hand (though the American Revolution, like most any revolution, was too messy to categorize absolutely in any direction).  George Washington, for example, had  a great fondness for Addison’s play about Cato the Younger, one of the pre-eminent plays of the Enlightenment.  Our Constitution very obviosuly borrows from the structures and ethos of the Roman Republic.  The Roman aristocracy led the rebellion and formed a government that favored their class.  And, we might note that the colonial rebellion started amongst the more egalitarian (and probably more literate) New England colonies.

But I do think the second option more likely.  This means we might have to change our view of what consititutes a good education, and helps us get beyond our current model, so heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution.  Bridenbaugh writes that this upbringing did produce “a responsible aristocracy, though not a cultured one.”  And of course, one can get “historical content” in many ways apart from books.

The western emphasis on literacy predates the Reformation.  The Reformation on the whole certainly stressed it, but they inherited this from the Catholic church.  The Church preserved the ancient manuscripts.  Up until quite recently, one had to go to the Church to receive an education.

This might lead us to further speculation . . . if the education in the mid-atlantic and southern regions lacked a strong literate foundation, what might have been the state of the church?  Indeed, Bridenbaugh cites a variety of examples showing the rather deplorable state of the dominant Anglican church in the south.  Among other things, churches could not lead colonial culture because they failed to transcend it.  The majority of churches seemed to provide little in the way of spiritual guidance, training, or education.

This in turn leads us to question the role of the Church in the American Revolution.  To what extent did it have either a firm Christian foundation, or merely a polite Christian veneer that covered an Enlightenment foundation?

As I mentioned earlier, consider this mostly speculative.  But I credit Bridenbaugh with gently encouraging such thoughts.

Dave

 

*Population figures seem to indicate that in rural areas blacks outnumbered whites, who feared rebellion constantly, which does not support the ‘contented’ myth.

 

10th Grade: Light and Darkness in New England

Greetings,

This week we examined Puritan society in New England during the 17th century. We will not examine much else in regard to North American colonization, but I feel that a focus on the Puritans is appropriate.  Of all the early colonization efforts, theirs had the most influence on the formation of what America would become, for better or worse.

We first looked at what motivated North American colonization in the first place.  Sometimes we tend to think that such colonization must have resulted from great oppression of the lower classes.  In reality many in England who came to North America had some limitations on their lives under Charles I, but all could live out their daily existence without much change, and most of them came from the middle-classes.  After all, a journey across the Atlantic did cost money, and the poor did not have much of it.

The basic characteristics of most who came probably consisted of. . .

  • People not afraid to take risks.  A journey across the ocean in a boat this small (see below) would not be for the faint of heart.
  • People who could afford (see above), but given the risk-reward ratio of sailing across the ocean to hew civilization out of the wilderness from scratch, very few if any of the aristocracy (who “had it all” in Europe) would come.  Hence, though Europeans (all who came from places with aristocracies) founded American civilization, from the start they had an anti-aristocratic bias.
  • While many who came sought their financial well-being, I believe the majority came for deeper reasons.  One could find business opportunity at home if need be.  Many who came were fired by an idea, or at minimum, the sense of adventure.  The risks were too great, and the rewards too uncertain, to be motivated by much less.

All these categories fit the Puritans, and then some.

We have some unfair misconceptions of the Puritans.  They were not, “Puritanical” in their morals.  At Harvard College, which they founded, a mug of beer came with the “meal plan” for lunch. . . and breakfast.  A surprising number of sermons (which were lengthy) dealt with sex and sexuality.  In one town a married woman complained to the Church elders that her husband was not, shall we say, performing his husbandly duties in the bedroom.  The husband got put in the stockade for a day, with a sign around his neck indicating the reason for his being there.

But the Puritans were deadly serious about their mission, and about life in general.  They wanted to leave England not so much because they were sorely oppressed, but because England would let them fully live out how they perceived God’s call on their lives.  The Puritans did not want merely to tweak society, but remake it from top to bottom along more Biblical lines.  England simply offered no room for this, and so, like Constantine (Constantinople) and Ikhneton (Amarna) before them, they sought a fresh canvas to live out their vision.

They did not do this blindly.  After all, God had already called a people to flee a wicked land, and led them to a new place where He gave them special laws to live as a witness to the nations.  The Puritans modeled themselves on Israel, which perhaps explains the vast increase in Old Testament names like Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, etc. in Puritan communities.*  Some went so far as to give their children hortatory names, with actual examples like. . .

  • Fight-the-good-fight-of faith (last name, Snat)
  • Kill-sin (last name, Pemble)
  • Humiliation (last name, Scratcher)

And the very unfortunate young lady who was named

  • Flee-fornication (she married a man named Goodman, last name, Woodman).

They saw their mission not just for themselves, but for all of Christendom.  If they could show the world the blessings that came from living according to God’s law, other places would repent and copy them.  Thus, their success was imperative, not just for themselves, but in their eyes, for all the world.  They were to be a “City on a Hill.”

The light that they hoped would shine could not be dimmed in any way.  While they came to have the freedom to exercise their faith, they could not afford to have “error” contaminate them.  Within their communities they granted no freedom of religion to others, and came into conflict most frequently with Quakers.

This strong sense of mission made a huge impact on Puritan communities.  When compared with other places in Europe or North America, the Puritans had a much lower illegitimate birthrate, and a much higher literacy rate.  Man for man the Puritans gave more sacrificially than their contemporaries.  Nowhere else was their more attention to Scripture, more “clean and sober” living.

As with any zealous people, however, this sense of mission had a darker side.  Since their entire society had a spiritual overtone, all that happened could be explained in spiritual terms.  If you went sailing on the Sabbath (forbidden in Puritan communities) and drowned, well, that was what you get for breaking God’s law.  If you had a toothache, no doubt you had sinned with your teeth.  The Puritans frowned on taverns, not because of alcohol, but because it tended to lead to boisterous singing.  All that energy was better spent elsewhere.  The Puritans wanted no blending, no syncretism with what they considered “pagan.”  The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, which ’12 Days’ has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and fined those that did celebrate it.

We can trace this approach back to the Puritans attitude about life in general.  Typical was this quote from Puritan Richard Sibbes,

There are two grand sides in the world, to which all belong: there is God’s side and those that are His, and there is another side that is Satan’s and those that are his. . . two contrary dispositions that pursue one another.

And from another fellow Puritan,

God hath placed us in the world to do him some work.  This is God’s working place; He hath houses of work for us: now, our lot here is to do work, to be in some calling. . . to work for God.

While the Puritans had many strengths, many of their weaknesses made themselves manifest in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.  When approaching this event, we should keep a couple of things in mind.

  • Could witchcraft real?  That is, is it possible that someone could give themselves over to Satan and use that power to work evil in the world?
  • If yes, then how would you know if someone was a witch?
  • If you thought someone was a real witch, what should be done with them?  As we discussed in class, if they had real powers, those powers would not be limited by geography.

In 1692, Salem experienced a burst of hysteria and a flurry of accusations over witchcraft.  They did not dispense with people on mere whims.  They had trials, brought forward witnesses, and had standard of evidence.  Those convicted usually had several witnesses against them, and many claimed to see spectres of the accused out and about in the community.  Astral Projection is a claimed power of witches.

If convicted, you had a chance to repent and be spared death.  However, one problem with the trials was the court’s demand that to demonstrate repentance, the accused name other witches in the community.  Refusal to name others could be taken as a sign that you had not really repented after all.

Within a few months they put the brakes on this runaway train, mainly because 1) They recognized that the trials tore the community apart, and this could not be the work of God, and 2) Significantly, they did not discount “spectral evidence,” or claim that the witnesses lied, but rather, that spectral evidence could be faked by demonic powers, again revealing their worldview.  They believed in evidence, but their standard for evidence, for better or worse, differs a good deal from ours today.

Though the trials stopped, they revealed deep divisions within Salem itself and a sign of the failing of the Puritan dream of a unified, godly community.  As the map below indicates, most of the accusers (‘A’) came from the poorer western sections of town, and most of those accused came from the wealthier eastern section.

The Puritans would fade away in the 18th century, but their stamp upon America remains, especially in regard to “family values,” and education.  In the early colonial era, New England could be described as perhaps the most “conservative” area, and is now one of the most liberal.  Some see this as evidence that, being wound so tight, New Englanders simply “snapped” and went the other way.  Some trace this to the influx of immigrants in the mid 19th century and beyond.  Personally, I tend to see more continuity.  In the 19th century, New England formed the hotbed of the abolitionist movement, and I think the Puritan, crusading spirit lives on, for better or worse, in New England today.

Blessings,

Dave

*One can see cultural differences reflected in how those in colonial Virginia, for example, named their children, with a predominance of famous English kings (William, Henry, etc.) and classic English female names like Margaret.  Clearly, Virginia had a more aristocratic and Anglo-centric emphasis to their society.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

 

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

I hope the students saw the links between Babylonian religion and the problems in their society as a whole. Indeed, the idea that ‘you are what you worship’ is true for individuals as much as societies.
For homework on Tuesday this week the students will look at sections from the “Code of Hammurabi,” what historians believe to be history’s oldest written law code.  On the one hand, forming this code ranks as a significant achievement, but I think we often overrate it.  Why did Egypt, for example, not have a written law code (that we know of, anyway)?  Egypt’s sense of purpose for their lives as individuals and as a civilization had such a strong religious foundation, that they simply appeared not to need a formal written law code.  Incidentally, the Egyptian creation account compares favorably in many key respects to the biblical account.  Babylon’s need for a law code so early in its life may have reflected the fractured nature of their society.

10th Grade: The Puritans in Power

Greetings,

This week we looked at the aftermath of the trial and execution of Charles I in England, and the ascension of the Puritans, represented by Oliver Cromwell, to power.

It’s hard to get more controversial than Oliver Cromwell.  Some see him as a champion of republican liberty, while some go so far as to label him a proto-fascist.    The facts are that the army dominated Parliament, and so Cromwell dominated Parliament.  He used this power to clear Parliament out of many of his opponents. He then went on campaigns in Ireland and Scotland to put down Stuart inspired resistance known for their brutality, and attempted to resign upon his return.  When this seemed impossible, he continued in power and became ‘Lord Protector’ of England and practically a king in all but name.

If you are a fan of Oliver Cromwell, you look at the events this way:

  • He did not have the luxury of waiting for Parliament to decide on a proper course.  Society will not stop to wait while the Revolution makes its decisions.  Cromwell felt that if Parliament would not act, society might descend into anarchy.
  • His campaigns were brutal, but you could argue that they were traitors and needed to be killed.
  • His attempt to resign shows that he was not interested in power as such, and wanted broader based democratic government.

Those against could just as well argue that

  • His lack of patience with Parliament may have had much more to due with the fact that he viewed Parliament as ineffectual not because they couldn’t function, so much as they would not agree with him.
  • His brutality during the Irish campaign became notorious, as he executed even those who surrendered voluntarily.  This poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come.
  • His assuming essential monarchical powers does not help those who argue that Cromwell was not interested in power for the sake of power alone.

The English Civil War gives witness to a key principle of revolutions in general.  For an existing power to get overthrown, one usually needs significant power to oppose it.  For the existing power to in danger of getting overthrown usually (not always) means some kind of misrule and perhaps abuse of power which would affect many people.  However, this abuse of power would not affect everyone in the same way.  So, while the government falls because many opposed it, they did not oppose it for the same reasons.  After the revolution, the victorious discover that they could agree on what was wrong, but not what to do in its place.

Who gets the power in these circumstances?  Usually whoever exerts the most direct control over the army.  The dynamic that played out in England may resemble what happened in Egypt, for example, after they overthrew Mubarak.

Cromwell’s attempt to found a republic also raises uncomfortable questions about the line between morality and practicality in politics.  In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli argues that any major shift in power, especially to a more democratic form of government, must be the work of one man (I include the full text at the end of the post).  In the end, the changes in government must have a point of unity, a point of control.  One might think that the American Revolution defeats this argument, but I think it unlikely the colonies would have successfully transitioned without George Washington, who “had” to serve as our first president.  One need not agree with Machiavelli’s moral implications (he excuses Romulus’ murder of his brother) to see the practical side of his ideas.

What did the Revolution Accomplish?

At first glance it seems the revolution accomplished little.  After Cromwell’s death Parliament recalled Charles I son Charles from exile and asked him to be King Charles II.  Charles did not rule without Parliament as his father had, but the powers of Parliament had clearly declined.  People rejoiced in Charles’s return from exile in France.  On the surface, since Charles II would have succeeded his father had their been no civil war, it seems like nothing changed.

But the proof would be felt in the long term.  Parliament had set a precedent.  Even in recalling Charles, they showed that it was they who could make kings as well as unmake them.  This would be felt most clearly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament kicked out James II and brought in William and Mary to be king in 1689.  Of course, William and Mary could reign, but on Parliament’s terms, not their own.

Still the aftermath of the Revolution does show the power of embedded habits and tradition.  We should expect that in uncertain times we fall back upon what we know — hence — Charles II.

The “Restoration” under Charles II had many strengths.  After the tumult of the previous 15-20 years people desperately wanted to relax and live their normal lives.  Charles II proved to be a very different man than his father, both in governing style and in temperament, as this portrait reveals.

Pulling off those shoes would require, if nothing else, a sense of humor, something Charles I lacked.  He also had more political sense regarding Parliament, and though he had little strong religious feeling himself (until the very end of his life, apparently) this at least meant that the religious furor that had wracked England for the past few decades could subside.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527):
Founding a Republic,
Excerpt from Discourses I, 9


To found a new republic, or to reform entirely the old institutions of an existing one, must be the work of one man only

It may perhaps appear to some that I have gone too far into the details of Roman history before having made any mention of the founders of that republic, or of her institutions, her religion and her military establishment. Not wishing, therefore, to keep any longer in suspense the desires of those who wish to understand these matters, I say that many will perhaps consider it an evil example that the founder of a civil society, as Romulus was, should first have killed his brother, and then have consented to the death of Titus Tatius, who had been elected to share the royal authority with him; from which it might be concluded that the citizens, according to the example of their prince, might, from ambition and the desire to rule, destroy those who attempt to oppose their authority. This opinion would be correct, if we do not take into consideration the object which Romulus had in view in committing that homicide. But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. A sagacious legislator of a republic, therefore, whose object is to promote the public good, and not his private interests, and who prefers his country to his own successors, should concentrate all authority in himself; and a wise mind will never censure any one for having employed any extraordinary means for the purpose of establishing a kingdom or constituting a republic. It is well that, when the act accuses him, the result should excuse him; and when the result is good, as in the case of Romulus, it will always absolve him from blame. For he is to be reprehended who commits violence for the purpose of destroying, and not he who employs it for beneficent purposes. The lawgiver should, however, be sufficiently wise and virtuous not to leave this authority which he has assumed either to his heirs or to any one else; for mankind being more prone to evil than to good, his successor might employ for evil purposes the power which he had used only for good ends. Besides, although one man alone should organise a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organisation of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it. That Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother and that of his associate, and that what he had done was for the general good, and not for the gratification of his own ambition, is proved by the fact that he immediately instituted a senate with which to consult, and according to the opinions of which he might form his resolutions. And on carefully considering the authority which Romulus reserved for himself, we see that all he kept was the command of the army in case of war, and the power of convoking the senate. This was seen when Rome became free, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, when there was no other innovation made upon the existing order of things than the substitution of two consuls, appointed annually, in place of an hereditary king; which proves clearly that all the original institutions of that city were more in conformity with the requirements of a free and civil society than with an absolute and tyrannical government.

The above views might be corroborated by any number of examples, such as those of Moses, Lycurgus, Solon, and other founders of monarchies and republics, who were enabled to establish laws suitable for the general good only by keeping for themselves an exclusive authority; but all these are so well known that I will not further refer to them. I will adduce only one instance, not so celebrated, but which merits the consideration of those who aim to become good legislators: it is this. Agis, king of Sparta, desired to bring back the Spartans to the strict observance of the laws of Lycurgus, being convinced that, by deviating from them, their city had lost much of her ancient virtue, and consequently her power and dominion; but the Spartan ephors had him promptly killed, as one who attempted to make himself a tyrant. His successor, Cleomenes, had conceived the same desire, from studying the records and writings of Agis, which he had found, and which explained his aims and intentions. Cleomenes was convinced that he would be unable to render this service to his country unless he possessed sole authority; for he judged that, owing to the ambitious nature of men, he could not promote the interests of the many against the will of the few; and therefore he availed himself of a convenient opportunity to have all the ephors slain, as well as all such others as might oppose his project, after which he restored the laws of Lycurgus entirely. This course was calculated to resuscitate the greatness of Sparta, and to give Cleomenes a reputation equal to that of Lycurgus, had it not been for the power of the Macedonians and the weakness of the other Greek republics. For being soon after attacked by the Macedonians, and Sparta by herself being inferior in strength, and there being no one whom he could call to his aid, he was defeated; and thus his project, so just and laudable, was never put into execution. Considering, then, all these things, I conclude that, to found a republic, one must be alone; and that Romulus deserves to be absolved from, and not blamed for, the death of Remus and of Tatius.